The British Empire Library

A Tale of Two Sisters: Life in Early British Colonial India

by Patrick Wheeler

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
In 2017, Patrick Wheeler published Ribbons Among the Rajahs: A History of British Women in India Before the Raj. Among many others, he included the evidence of Elizabeth Gwillim and her sister Mary Symonds, who were in Madras between 1801-1807. Now from the broad sweep of history he returns to the micro-story of Elizabeth and Mary whose lively letters home, mainly to their mother and sister, provide a fascinating picture not only of the nature of British society, but their own talents and interests, and the way these interacted with the world of India. The letters are deposited in the British Library, and in a work of considerable scholarship, the author has transcribed them, reproducing them with a commentary to the letters of each year in order to give context.

The sisters sailed to India with Elizabeth’s husband, Sir Henry Gwillim, who had been appointed judge of the Supreme Court in Madras. The sisters were very different. Mary was more interested in society - as befitted a single woman in need of a husband, though the proposals she received did not meet her approval and, ironically, she married the captain of the ship which took her home. Elizabeth was the more intellectual, eager to engage with the culture and learning of India. Together with the rather tetchy Sir Henry, they helped hold together the small and disparate expatriate community, providing welcoming support to young bachelors and a focal point for the gaieties of the social scene.

Women’s presence was certainly an anglicising factor. The sisters’ letters tell us how instrumental they were in importing British seeds and plants, foodstuffs for the table, and the clothes and accessories that were needed for British fashion. On the other hand, they were an important channel for sending home the beautiful Indian products which became fashionable features of clothing and interior design. The sisters also despatched Indian seeds and plants, which in time changed the appearance of British gardens. Both sisters were talented painters. Elizabeth’s interest in Hinduism led her to a study of botany, and then botanical illustration which engaged her with the scientific world at home. More remarkably, she produced an astonishing series of bird paintings, many of them life-size, based on living specimens procured by her servants and other Indians.

The accuracy with which she reproduced the feather formations is remarkable. Although Mary also painted from nature - she recorded numerous fish - her interests focused more on the people of Madras, and in warm and glowing colours she depicted those she saw about her in the streets, as well as scenes from Hindu stories. With considerable imagination, she also painted figures which were intended to be cut out and arranged in a box to represent a three dimensional view of a scene. Several of the sisters’ paintings are reproduced in the book.

Their writing was also vivid. Letter writing was at the time considered a talent for which women were particularly suited, requiring lightness and grace. The accounts of Elizabeth in particular bring to life the local festivals and processions, their exuberance, music and colour. Their witness to events they describe also gave their records authenticity, and allowed them to express views - sometimes critical - born of experience. Mary, for example, was scathing about the British authority’s role in the rebellion at Vellore in 1806.

In other ways, too, women’s accounts were privileged. British women had an asymetric advantage in Indian society, where upper class Indian women were segregated. Indian men accepted British women’s role of social equality, and were ready to mix with them. In 1802, Mary gives an entertaining account of the presence of the local ‘Nabob’ at a St Andrew’s day ball and supper, and his subsequent visit to the Gwillim home for breakfast. On the other hand, the world of upper class Indian women was hidden to British men - though many had relationships with Indian women lower down the social scale - and it fell to British women to report on their encounters. Muslims in particular had acquired in the west a reputation for supposed sensuality, and Mary’s account of visiting the families of several Muslim aristocrats in 1804 was thus of considerable interest to her correspondents, who passed letters widely round circles of family and friends.

The sisters’ interests and pursuits were not unique. Other women at the same period and later recorded their lives in India in words, sketches and paintings, and often published the result. Maybe Elizabeth and Mary intended to do the same - but Elizabeth’s death in Madras in December 1807 put paid to a potential project. It has been left to a current generation to resurrect their achievements. Elizabeth’s outstanding bird paintings fortuitously ended up in the Blacker-Wood Collection at McGill University, where they can be viewed online and the University has recently led a project to study them. Mary’s paintings which are in the Madras Album in the South Asia Collection Museum in Norwich, and their letters in the British Library. Involving academics and writers round the world, the sisters’ work has been examined from multiple perspectives. Patrick Wheeler’s scholarly achievement has been an inspiration for the project.

British Empire Book
Patrick Wheeler
Peter Lang AG
Review Originally Published
Spring 2023 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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